Q&A: Security and Democracy in Tunisia after Latest Attack

Published: 
July 14, 2015
By: 
Daniel Brumberg

A Tunisian gunman recently massacred 38 people at the major resort of Sousse.  It was the second mass attack this year, after the March 18 assault on the well-known Bardo Museum in the capital Tunis that killed 22 people, most of them tourists. U.S. Institute of Peace Special Advisor Daniel Brumberg explores the ramifications for Tunisia and the region, as the country shows determination to pursue a democratic transition.

Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Samuel Aranda

What is your assessment of this tragedy’s political, economic and security implications for Tunisia?

The security implications are serious.  Some reports suggest that it took 30 minutes for the police to arrive. Others indicate the armed police were present but their guns jammed.  Hotel staff took heroic actions, but could not stop the rampage. Now, with this second mass killing, Tunisia’s leaders may feel that their country is on the edge of a precipice—a perception underscored by President Beji Caid Essebsi’s July 4 declaration of a “state of emergency.”

“In the wake of the Sousse attack, the quest for a sustained reform consensus and vision has become much more difficult. This is precisely what the authors of that massacre wanted.”

Is this first and foremost a security challenge, an economic crisis, a political challenge?

All of these and more. The tourism industry is likely to see dramatic losses, which means not only more unemployment but also a drastic fall in tax revenues. The slow pace of reform in the security sector means that a more efficient police force -- by which I mean one that has the ethos, means and training to protect the populace -- is absent when most needed. But all of these things are symptomatic of more fundamental political, leadership and institutional challenges -- all of which are interconnected and thus systemic.

Systemic problems require systemic solutions, and a vision of how to achieve them. Tunisia has taken important steps, not least of which is the election of a parliament and president, a milestone for the region. The challenge for the country’s new leaders is to forge this vision against a background of growing security threats. In some parts of Tunisian society, these threats have fostered declining faith in the very idea of political reform, if not democracy.

Does the emergency decree support such a systemic approach to, say, the security sector? After all, the declaration of the emergency has been widely endorsed by political leaders, including Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Ennahda Party?

It’s a start, but by itself the declaration won’t change things for the better. I think Ghannouchi wisely decided to support the government, of which his party is a member. But Ennahda’s support does not make up for growing concerns about the wider political implications of the government’s actions, including the state of emergency. Some Tunisians, particularly human rights activists, fear that the use—or abuse—of this law could eventually lead to a return of dictatorship. The proposed “terrorism law,” yet to be passed, has stoked similar concerns.

So these groups are worried that the government’s actions might undermine the consolidation of Tunisia’s emerging democracy and democratic institutions?

That’s true. But, the problem is more complicated than that. The “state of emergency” law is vague and gives potentially enormous and unchecked power to the government for a period of 30 days that can be renewed. But the issue is not the law itself: As several Tunisian constitutional experts have noted, the law dates back to 1978, and was passed under the 1959 Constitution, a document that has since been superseded by a new constitution created by a popularly elected Constituent Assembly.

That constitution is not only new and untested; its application requires the creation of a High Constitutional Court. The formation of that has been held up by escalating struggles within the highly politicized arena of the judiciary. This is just one of several overlapping factors that will make it hard for the president to make good on a promise he made in his speech on the emergency decree, when he pledged that his government would continue to advance democracy.

What are the other factors undermining a systematic approach?

I am thinking of two challenges. The first has to do with escalating social and identity conflicts. In the wake of the Sousse attack, the debate is intensifying over what exactly is causing the security challenges, who is to blame and what should be done. These polarized accounts of “reality” remind me of the situation in Tunisia in 2012 and 2013, when the debate over the constitution and other key political issues seemed to be unfolding in two different countries. This debate created near-paralysis in the political elite, while also feeding popular perceptions of a political leadership that was incapable of or uninterested in addressing the difficult social challenges facing average Tunisians.

It may well be that this kind of politicized debate has again become an unavoidable – and perhaps healthy -- byproduct of democratization. But it can also be harmful if Tunisia’s leaders cannot finally transcend the debate to focus on the myriad systemic reforms urgently needed. A declaration of a state of emergency cannot be a substitute for a coherent reform strategy that tackles a range of issues, including economic restructuring and the problem of corruption.

What is the second factor obstructing a systematic strategy?

The second factor has do with institutional capacity and competence and the challenge of structural fragmentation. You can see it many arenas. In the judiciary, I would say that while I understand the generational, social and even ideological divisions that have pitted lawyers against judges (and lawyers against lawyers and judges against judges), I fear that these struggles will further stymie the creation of a High Constitutional Court, without which the new constitution cannot provide an effective framework for addressing escalating challenges.

At the very moment that the security sector finds itself up against rising challenges, there is significant judicial and legal vacuum, one that owes its existence partly to the political warfare going on the judiciary itself.

Can you see a similar struggles going in the security sector?

That’s a tough question. You can see evidence of such struggles. But the Interior Ministry has consistently resisted scrutiny. And now with rising security challenges, it has more leverage to deflect pressures for accountability. It remains a black box.

That said, this problem also illustrates how the lack of institutional and ideological capacity have become inextricably bound together. Since the Sousse attacks, politicians, journalists and writers have hotly debated who is responsible for the inefficiencies of the police and gendarmerie. 

Those with a more secular orientation argue that the problem can be traced to the leadership changes in upper echelons of the security institutions that Ennahda imposed when it was the leading party in the “Troika” government. Others dismiss this argument as a mere distraction. The changes that Ennahda initiated by fiat may have been far from perfect, they argue, but they only underscore the deep resistance within the police and Interior Ministry to change itself. These observers say the Essebsi government has revived the old apparatus rather than meeting the challenge of reform head-on.

So, whose account of the problems in the security apparatus can we believe?

The Tunisian analysts whose judgments I trust most emphasize that the security apparatus of the Ben Ali era existed not to protect the citizens but to protect the regime and its clients, particularly those benefitting from corruption. And so it did not have the technology, training and ethos required for serving either as a protector of the populace, or for that matter, as an instrument for pursuing internal security threats. In this sense, it was a fragmented and weak institution from the start.

But Tunisia can ill afford such divides now.  And this is why, if you want a police force that has the capacity and will to address the challenges of terrorism, you have to rebuild the security apparatus from the bottom-up and the top-down, comprehensively, and in concert with other changes in many other arenas, including the judiciary. Once again, the challenge is one ofsystemic reform.

Such reform depends in no small measure on the will and commitment of political leaders. Sadly, there is a widening perception that the country’s leaders are hesitant to push for key reforms, particularly from within key institutions, such as the Interior Ministry.

Many Tunisian leaders would say their country has a democratically elected government and the building blocks for securing constitutional governance and the rule of law and that security challenges must be the priority.

Having a strategic vision doesn’t mean doing everything at once. But it does mean having a sense of the critical necessary changes, and how change in one arena will feed -- positively or negatively -- into another. This requires a broad vision and it requires leaders in myriad organizations and social arenas to put aside or at least attenuate their narrower agendas and ideologies in favor of a comprehensive national agenda. Absent this, you cannot have internal security. On the contrary, what you might get is more insecurity.

What’s an example of how internal security, systematic reform and leadership are linked like that?

Tunisia’s government is understandably inclined to emphasize security so they can focus on economic challenges -- foreign investment, growth and economic restructuring. But there are many Tunisians, especially the economically and social deprived hinterland south and west of the Tunisian coastal region, who fear these security agendas will be pursued without addressing the regional imbalances that deny their communities of infrastructure, tax revenue and jobs.

The resulting sense of estrangement from the political and social agenda of the elites has bred anger and resentment among young people. That, in turn, makes them vulnerable targets for Islamist recruitment. 

So the big challenge is radical Islamism?

No, the issue is not just the challenge posed by jihadist groups or ideology, but the conditions that create sympathy for that ideology, and those are largely social and economic.  We know, for example, that many Islamists are also profiting from trafficking drugs and other forms of contraband along the borders with Algeria and especially Tunisia.  What starts as an economic opportunity can morph dangerously into Islamist radicalism. 

This is a complex problem that requires a multi-dimensional approach. An emergency decree by itself runs the risk of encouraging a widening net of security actions that backfire by increasing rather than reducing the pool of recruits.

What you need in Tunisia is a comprehensive approach that ensures that Tunisia doesn’t turn everything into a security issue. A more holistic strategy must include a genuine effort by national and local leaders to sustain a measure of consensus and cooperation between Islamists and non-Islamists.

But in the wake of the Sousse attack, the quest for a sustained reform consensus and vision has become much more difficult. This is precisely what the authors of that massacre wanted -- to set the conditions for an intensified domestic conflict that would endanger the state itself. They should not be rewarded.

July 14, 2015
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